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High Key Photography: White Products On White Backgrounds Part II

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One of the greatest challenges in product photography is to photograph a white subject against a white background. High Key photography, where there is little to no contrast in the image, requires careful metering and light positioning to ensure neither subject nor background will be overexposed.

In High Key photography the shape and depth of the subject are defined by shadows. Our aim here is to produce photographs that will be used in eCommerce websites and that require minimal image editing, so a white background and low contrast ratio from highlights to shadows are required.

The main mistake when photographing a white product against a white background is to overexpose both foreground and background, making it difficult to know where the product ends and the background begins, like in the image below.

Overexposed. A common mistake

Overexposed. A common mistake.

In this post I’ll walk through an example and share product photography tips to help you produce great images with very little effort.

Getting Started

Producing professional white product photography doesn’t have to be expensive. In order to keep costs low we will be using props that are simple and easy to find, and will focus on technique.

Required Props

Required Props.

The Tools

  1. I used a 16mp DSLR APS-C camera to produce the images you will see in this post, but basically any camera having 6 mp or more will do the job. Since our final output is for the internet, a large amount of megapixels is irrelevant (you will have to downsize the image anyway). The camera must have a manual exposure mode and a hot shoe to attach a dedicated flashgun (more on that later).
  2. A flashgun as our main light. This could also be any studio flash you have, as long as you can fire it remotely.
  3. Radioflash triggers. You can replace the radioflash with an off-camera shoe cord or another flash that will fire your main light. The goal here is to fire our main off-camera light remotely.
  4. Adhesive tape.
  5. Light grey postcard paper sheet, to use as our background.
  6. A softbox: in this case I’ve used a 60cm x 60cm softbox. You can use a smaller one or a shoot-through umbrella. I prefer softboxes instead of umbrellas because the latter scatter light all around. If you’re working in an open environment, that’s fine, but if you are in a small space it will be difficult to control the light.

The Setup

Place the white postcard paper on a flat surface and against a wall; close to an “L” shape, but a little more open so it doesn’t bend in a way that will mark the paper. Use adhesive tape to hold it in place. What we’re looking for here is a nice curve from bottom to top. Setup your light and the softbox. Use proper lighting on your product when you have your light grey backdrop. If you don’t, you will overexpose your background and the product will be too dark in the front and have highlights on the top. I’ve used a tripod to hold the flash, but having an assistant hold it or attaching it to a surface with clamps will also work. The most important thing is to make sure it is steady and secure. Don’t worry about your photography lighting just yet; we will try two different setups for this session and I will detail them later on.

Place your product on the paper and your camera in front of it. Your ideal scenario here is to use a tripod for your camera. It will give you more stability and consistency from shot to shot, but it is also possible to achieve great results handholding your camera.

White Subject and White Background

Setting the Camera

Start setting your camera by choosing the highest shutter speed possible that will sync with your light. This value will vary from 1/160 to 1/200. If you’re not sure about the sync speed of your equipment, set it to 1/160 just to be on the safe side. Doing so will minimize the ambient light on your image. I also like to start by setting my ISO to the minimum so I can get as little noise as possible on my image.

My aperture was set to F8. That’s not an arbitrary setting: every lens has an optimal aperture, usually between F8 and F11. The higher the F number the more of your product will be in focus – in other words, it will increase the depth of field. It makes sense to use an aperture set to F8 as a starting point, and if you find you need more depth of field you can set it to F11 or higher to bring more of the product into focus.

Other settings I used: shoot in RAW (always preferable if you camera has this option), White Balance set to “Flash,” and shooting mode set to self timer (5s) to minimize camera shake. If you’re shooting handheld, there is no need to set to self timer.

The next step is to meter your light. if you have a light meter, use it to determine the correct aperture for your scene. Otherwise, take a test shot and check your histogram. You can do so on your camera or download the image and use image editing software to do so. Digital photography has simplified photography lighting: not everyone realizes it, but if you have a digital camera in your hands you also have a very precise light meter.

This is how the histogram works: the graph represents the amount of pixels in your image. The right side represents the highlight, the left side the shadows, and the middle represents the midtones. Since we’re doing High Key photography it’s normal that the bulk of the pixel are located on the right side, indicating a brighter image. Note, however, that they are not touching the edge of the histogram on either side. That means in this specific image I don’t have any blown out (completely white) or completely black pixels (clipping to the left). Use this information as a starting point. If your histogram has the bulk of the pixels to the left, your image is probably too dark and has room to brighten. If there is any pixel clipping to the right, you are losing information (the image is too bright).

You can use the following options to control the intensity of your light:

  1. Increase/decrease the power output on your flash unit. Most units will have at least a half power option and many flashguns will go as low as 1/128 of full power.
  2. Set a different aperture (lower the number to get a brighter image or increase the number to darken it).
  3. Increase/decrease ISO.
  4. Use a combination of the three above.

Changing the shutter speed will not have any effect on your main light (the one that comes from the flash), only your ambient light.

The First Light Setup

In order to take our first shot, place the main light right in front of the subject and slightly above it, with the softbox facing towards it (about 1.5 meters away from the subject). Make sure that you’ve connected the radioflashes both on camera and on the main light. Alternatively, if you are using the off-camera shoe cord or another way to fire your main light remotely, fire a few shots and check if it’s working properly.

Lighting with a softbox and radioflash

Lighting with a softbox and radioflash.

That’s a nice white product image. One advantage of this lighting setup is that it minimizes shadows around the product, so if you want to Pixelz from the image it will be a lot easier.

The Second Light Setup

The second way to light this product is very similar to the method we used before and does not require the softbox or the radioflash/off-camera shoe cord. In fact, if all you have is a flashgun and a camera, you can still make a great looking product shot. There are some caveats, though.

Your flashgun must be able to swivel its head upwards since you’ll be using it on your camera’s hotshoe. The ceiling must not be too high because you’ll be bouncing the light off of it. Ideally, it will be white or light grey so no colour cast is thrown on your product.

Lighting with a flashgun

Lighting with a flashgun.

Below is the final version after image editing. In both setups the trick is to underexpose the bag just a little, so it will stand out against the white background.

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That is it for our post. White product on a white background? Not a problem anymore!

Remember that if you need any help editing your images, you can always send them over to us here at Pixelz.